Women, Confidence & Leadership


woman carrying bull
This autumn I had the very great honour and privilege to meet and receive a blessing from one of the most eminent female practitioners within the Nyingma Tibetan lineage. This extraordinary 90-year-old woman shone. I have for many years had a great need to meet and experience the consciousness of a highly advanced female practitioner, so this was a huge moment for me. She does not (as is the way in most esoteric lineages for women) teach publicly; her brothers give the public teaching. The only way to meet her is by private introduction.
There are numerous historical/social/political reasons why women struggle or have been actively inhibited in having a voice. To mention a few in the spiritual world, women may be told they need a more fortunate rebirth to progress, or simply that they are to just stay behind the scenes because it is the habit or culture for the men to teach. Whilst these issues still remain and are of course important, for this article I want to explore what for me, is a more interesting question:

Why do women themselves hold back and refuse to step forward in their spiritual/teaching capacity?

I would like to look at this from the perspective of confidence. To define confidence I am going to lean into Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he tells us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”

I like the simplicity of this definition, and by action I am referring to the huge deficit in the spiritual arena of women prepared to step forward into leadership/teaching roles.

Why does this matter? Why is it important to have female representations of spiritual elevation in actual form, when we are looking to spiritual development to remove/harmonise duality? When at the deepest levels of spiritual cultivation, where stillness resides, there is no gender? When humanity is humanity? Is our physical manifest form, in its different strengths and weaknesses, even relevant in the spiritual arena? All questions I have asked myself, and been asked often. Yes it does! It matters!

It matters because amongst instruction and numerous other functions of a teacher, perhaps one of the most important functions of a spiritual teacher is to inspire.

To inspire the practitioner to keep walking on the path when it becomes difficult. When the inevitable pitfalls of the mind grasp our ankles and call us to give up. So for women when we are surrounded by largely patriarchal representations of spiritual elevation to meet/know/have a teacher of our gender is to reframe within the personal and collective mind, the idea of feminine spiritual authority, based within the art we are studying. This sculpts the knowledge for women, whether conscious or not, that their spirituality is legitimate, not lesser, and achievable in this form.

This means that the idea of women’s spiritual authority can exist in the iconography of our culture and language. This I believe to be profoundly important. The lack of which in the traditions, classics, spiritual art and actual teachers has a subtle yet eroding effect on a woman’s consciousness and confidence, and a re-enforcing of all of our (male and female) conditioning around gender and leadership.

I believe that women have to give up certain fundamental conditionings to begin to address some of these issues. We have to do the work necessary to release assumptions and addictions to thinking that feed this lack of confidence. Yes this isn’t easy, but what that is worthwhile is? For example:

- We need to give up blaming things like culture, patriarchy, advertising and history instead of realizing the truth that we have what it takes to be just as confident in ourselves as men do, to reach the depths of practice that is largely represented to us by men. The manifestation of this confidence will express in our uniquely feminine way; that we are living in a time, here in the west, where there is unprecedented opportunities to express ourselves.

Ultimately the only one holding us back is us.

-  We need to relinquish our addiction to caring, or at least being seen as caring. While there is nothing wrong with women being caretakers, it does add a complicated layer to this whole confidence issue. It is virtually impossible for us to make decisions without considering the laundry list of possible impact: how might this be perceived? Who might this offend? How might this choice impact the life of someone who is in my care? Who’s going to reject me?

We have to move beyond all of this, find a motive for sharing that takes us beyond this type of self-centeredness.

This arena of caring is also where the mother archetype comes into play for both males and females. A large and complex subject, but vital I believe in the types of projections we place upon women who step forward with some authority. Often these projections are deeply unconscious, yet potentially very destructive, especially if the external demands on a woman are to constantly fulfill this caring role.

The majority of us have experienced women as having authority over us when they were our mothers; the imprint of this experience informs the unconscious response to women with power, especially as these women age to over 30 or so. Whilst of course men receive the father projection, the difference here is that men are culturally ‘allowed’ to lead in numerous other ways.

Motherhood and caring are one of the few areas in our culture where women are encouraged to lead, with a peculiar conflict inherent in the message; presented on the one hand as the primary spiritual role of women within religious traditions whilst simultaneously motherhood has been seen as an automatic disqualifier to traversing the higher realms of spirituality. We women seem to be caught in the virgin/whore dichotomy again! So we are encouraged to excel in holding family, raising children, and other caring professions whilst at the same time if we step out of those ‘mothering’ roles into leadership of another kind, the collective atmosphere and language surrounding such a woman is often not so friendly.

- We need to keep loving and supporting but stop making men or some man the most important thing in our lives. We are too comfortable standing behind, in the supportive role. Again there is nothing inherently wrong with this as long as it’s a choice, not a reaction based upon the fear of what it would mean to step into the foreground.

Women are often comfortable being ‘less’, as if afraid of our own power. Perhaps woman are simply more comfortable for him to be in the foreground even though (as I have often seen) the female part of the couple is the one with skill. We have been conditioned to behave this way. This is one of the things that needs to go. We have to actively dismantle some of these beliefs, build our confidence, look for examples of women stepping forward in ways we admire and get on with it!

Men, of course, are not exempt from doubting themselves – but generally they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.  A Hewlett Packard internal report found that men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. What doomed them was not their actual ability, but rather the decision not to try. This makes sense to me as I see it so often in my 30 years of teaching.

So many talented, deeply committed women, who put in hours of study and practice, and yet do not feel able/safe/confident to share that with others in a teaching role. I would love to see that change.

- We need to relinquish our addiction to emotionalism and make our practice, our connection to the divine the most important thing in our lives… If there is a need for addiction, get addicted to cultivation and reduce our identification with the emotions.

Nearly every woman in my life is asking questions about purpose and confidence, and working to fulfil her deepest purpose in the world. Nearly all the men in my life are good-hearted, loving, supportive men, committed to making a way for women – stepping aside to share their power and privilege. So it would be wonderful to see more of us women taking this step forward with confidence to unapologetically express the gifts and insights we have to offer. We have something to say: let’s support each other to redress the balance a little.
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